Matthew Barnes has been retracing his steps. His new album, Compassion, comes as the follow-up to 2013’s critically lauded debut Engravings, and explores engaging with our present, uncertain world. Built on a need to connect more with others and broaden his outlook, Matthew spent the past two years getting intimate with places he’d previously only fleetingly visited, looking for inspiration. The result is a beautifully intricate, layered and complex album weaving in a variety of analogue and digital textures, field recordings, clattering beats and fizzing orchestral arrangements, aimed at questioning how we meaningfully connect and communicate with one another.
Matthew begins our interview by telling me he had no expectations for what might have come out of his trips. More than anything he had hoped to get to know the places he had visited, Istanbul and the Highlands amongst others, a bit better, and that absorbing these places might lead to something, a beat, a field recording, anything. His last record focused on one place and, in his eyes, felt a bit insular. He wanted to make something more world facing and, having been naturally quite a shy child, he wanted to face the world himself. He would just go out, meet strangers, and get talking. Forcing himself into these situations really increased his confidence, got him to discover loads of new music, and got him thinking about the ways we communicate with one another in society. What Matthew ended up with was a collection of elements that he would later weave together to form Compassion. He explains how the album was built mostly as one piece, and I comment that it sounds almost orchestral, like it has movements and themes rather than individual focused tracks, something he says others have remarked upon. I follow this up by asking about one of the album's bigger ideas, that whilst in the time we live in it can be difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel, one can realise there’s strength to be found in creating your own.
“To do that kinda thing you have to bring other people in as well. I don’t think you can necessarily do those things solo. I’ve realised you have to galvanise with people to make things happen and moving forward, musically, I want to look at collaborating with other people, and getting different people’s angles. I’ve noticed the limitations towards the end of making this record of doing stuff on my own. I feel like I’ve got to a point in my life where I want to bring other people in, and I think coming to that conclusion is really liberating.”
I ask about what he’s been up to in the four-year gap between Compassion and Engravings. He describes a number of different projects spanning the arts, and explains how connecting with people from across disciplines has helped him grow as an artist and loosen up a bit. As much of his answer focuses on the way they’ve helped him develop as a person, as it does on what the projects actually were. He describes scoring and directing a dance piece in his native Liverpool, fun because it was a world he had no prior grounding in, and learning about it, and the history, was really interesting. He also describes a film project in collaboration with a speculative architect looking at future worlds. Real sincerity comes from explaining working with Massive Attack, and how it can be really beneficial to see someone else’s workflow. This, he tells me, is something he’s going to try to bring into his own future projects.
“You have to look at writing music in a completely different way, and I feel like that definitely filtered down into the record. There are bits of the record that definitely feel a lot looser than last time, and maybe I have a bit more confidence in putting in space, letting things hang a bit more.”
Again, underlying this is the idea of connecting with others, and I move on to discuss the wider themes of communication and expression in the album. One consequence of going out and speaking to people was that Matthew realised the limitations of his own language, and the ways he was talking to people. He felt embarrassed by his own attempts to talk when everyone spoke such good English and it got him thinking about how we talk to one another, and how we can improve communication in the modern era. It also happened to come at a time where a lot of his friends didn’t find themselves in the best place, but were unable to effectively communicate it.
Matthew found himself in conversation with a man called David Peterson, a linguist. He’d read a bit of his book but found it too heavy. I remark that it’s not one of the social sciences you find particularly relatable or popularised, to which he agrees. The pair entered a discussion about the more modern ways of communication, such as using pictures or emojis, which, Matthew explains, lead to more open dialogues that are open to greater interpretation. I argue that in the modern day communication is easier than ever with everyone being so connected, and I throw in the example of the Whatsapp experiment he devised to help launch the album, in which he posted his number online and sent anyone who responded tracks, the idea being it offered the possibility to create a new channel through which he could distribute his work.
“I was just kinda sending them stuff and occasionally they’d send me their music back or send me a message about where they listened to the album, or the way that they connected with the music…. It was quite overwhelming really. I got like 700 messages, all in all, that I replied to. I only expected about 50, so it was quite a wild thing to do, but it was a really fun experiment.”
He explains that he’s going to try to do something using Skype in the run up to this release but at this point he doesn’t quite have it figured out. It doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm, and he explains that he really likes the potential in using those channels we use every single day. People from every corner of the globe seemed to dig the idea, and he explains that whilst there’s some idea of the fact it’s ‘global’, you have no real sense of the sheer scale of it until someone actually messages you saying they’re from Australia or Ethiopia.
“There was a real difference between someone sending me a tweet and someone sending me a Whatsapp – it felt a lot more personal, it felt like talking to someone at the merch stand after a show rather than someone shouting over the garden wall... I think I’m gonna keep it open, I like the idea of people just being able to text me, or send me their music, or send me recommendations and tips. I think that’s really cool.”
I ask Matthew about his “Dense Truth” project, an umbrella tying together all the work he’s doing, including this album. Having worked with so many different, multidisciplinary artists he was looking to consolidate it all, and bring it together into some workable form. He sees the project as “a creative studio rather than a record label”, where you can “just sorta do anything, put anything out, and be involved in any kinda different project.” It’s about facilitating good ideas, and given his truly global curiosity I can’t see it not working. He says that pushing into different areas is useful, that it allows you to learn new things, and that as he’s gets a bit older he realises there’s a lot of value to be found in learning from other people. Again, it’s the idea of connecting with those around you that remains central to his ethos. I remark how refreshing that is to hear.
“I definitely think moving forward as well, in terms of what’s going on in the world, I think we’re gonna need to connect with people and go, ‘this is shit, we’re having a hard time, everyone is sad. What can we do about it?’ and I think part of that is just realising we need each other sometimes…”
Having talked for the best part of an hour, we come towards the end of the interview. I ask Matthew how he sees all this tying in with the wider idea of being an artist. As much as it is an expression of his own worldview, I get the impression he sees it as a vehicle to connect with the world around him. He tells me that this is increasingly the case. He started to enjoy being around people more on his last tour, and he felt more comfortable being on stage.
“It felt more like we were all experiencing it at the same time, and that has become quite key actually… Playing club shows and doing electronic festivals and understanding about the power of a shared experience made me…. it was quite liberating! It was quite an eye-opener really!”
My final question draws a long pause. I ask Matthew, given his ideas on creating that light at the end of the tunnel rather than just waiting for it, whether he sees the role of an electronic artist as a vehicle for change, or simply a medium for relief. It’s a tricky one, but working through it, again, we arrive back at his main focus. Connecting with people and exchanging ideas, he tells me, acts as the vehicle for change, and that the kinship gained through this sort of work can be powerful, changing the way you view and interact with the world. Unexpectedly, he turns it on me and asks me what I reckon, which prompts a moment of hesitation. But eventually, as with the rest of our conversation, the prompt spurs a trip down another rabbit hole of more or less tenuously related topics.
Just over a week later I message Matthew. I ask him how keeping the lines of communication open is faring – his earlier idea had crystallised, and he had been offering to screen an extended edit of the video for Panic to people over Skype. I also take the opportunity to send him some information about a documentary I’d remembered since our chat, about the safety of nuclear storage in the remote future, owing to its ideas on language and communication. It felt personal, and it felt like it had the possibility to become another interesting and enriching exchange of ideas, a connection worth fostering.
Compassion by Forest Swords is out 5th May 2017 on Ninja Tune. Find out more HERE.
Image Credit: All images © Dense Truth